Beastly beatitudes

Four movies take a walk on the wild side

Brian Bethune July 1 1994

Beastly beatitudes

Four movies take a walk on the wild side

Brian Bethune July 1 1994

Beastly beatitudes


Four movies take a walk on the wild side

The summer movie season is under way, and it’s a jungle out there. Wyatt Earp presents a saga of vengeful slaughter from the Old West, while in Wolf, a book editor unleashes his animal instinct on Manhattan. For the intrepid viewer seeking an escape from Hollywood fare, The Cement Garden offers a disturbing tale of orphans and incest. And in The Lion King— Bambi with teeth—a parent’s murder is all part of family entertainment.

WYATT EARP is a big, lumbering epic of a western that enshrines a reallife legend as a largerthan-life tragedy of lost innocence. The movie is more than three hours long—too long—but after the marathon Dances with Wolves and JFK, perhaps length has become a point of pride for their star,

Kevin Costner. Teaming up with director Lawrence Kasdan, who scripted The Bodyguard, Costner creates another of his plainspoken, emotionally inert American heroes.

In his youth, Earp is just an ingenuous goof from an Iowa cornfield who has ambitions to be a lawyer. But after typhoid kills his first wife during pregnancy, he is devoured by bitterness. Settling in the West with his brothers, Earp dons a badge to become a hardline enforcer of law and order—waging a war against outlaw gangs that climaxes in the infamous shootout at the O.K. Corral.

There is ample violence, and Kasdan dwells on dumb brutality with an eye for authentic detail. He portrays gunfighting as grisly, unglamorous and faintly absurd: after a man is shot, his clothes catch on fire from powder bums. The human drama is less convincing. Costner’s robotic delivery wears thin—the Terminator comes to Tombstone. And when he talks to women—whether brushing off his suicidal second wife or declaring love to his third—he sounds like someone learning to read.

But Dennis Quaid turns in an Oscar-calibre performance as Doc Holliday, a tubercular

dentist with a vicious sense of humor. Quaid, who lost 43 pounds for the role, looks like the original cowboy junkie, a hollow-cheeked spectre. And every moment he is onscreen, he injects such delightful venom into his scenes that the flatness of the film around him becomes all too obvious.


WOLF is hardly the first movie in which Jack Nicholson shows his talent for playing the demon. He has bared his fangs, figuratively at least, as a maniac in The Shining, the devil

in The Witches of Eastwick and the Joker in Batman. But never before has Nicholson played such a sympathetic and well-rounded demon. Although the idea of Wolfman Jack may sound like an invitation to self-parody, he does not abuse the privilege. While the actor does dip into his familiar repertoire of wicked smiles and mannerisms, they serve as grace notes in one of the most contained, original and powerful performances of his career. The movie, meanwhile, is deliciously rich entertainment—with elements of a scaiy thriller, a Beauty and the Beast romance, a corporate satire and a witty inquiry into the nature of disease and sexual aggression.

Novelist Jim Harrison, who conceived the story and co-wrote the script, has recast the werewolf myth as a modern, strangely credible folk tale. Will (Nicholson) is a worldweary Manhattan book editor about to lose

his job in the takeover of a prominent literary publishing house. One snowy night, while driving along a remote road, he hits a wolf with his Volvo. When he approaches the animal, it bites him on the wrist and then runs off. Possessed by the wolfs spirit, Will develops superhuman confidence and strength, as well as acutely enhanced senses of smell and hearing. Will becomes a warrior: he outflanks his venal young rival at the office Games Spader), plays hardball with the tycoon who has fired him (Christopher Plummer) and exposes the infidelity of his wife (Kate Nelligan). As a tonic in the dog-eat-dog world of Manhattan, a wolf bite beats Prozac hands down.

But the nights are hell. When the sun goes down, the carnivorous instincts that have made Will such a successful New Yorker turn him into a predator. And after he uses his newfound animal magnetism to strike up a relationship with the tycoon’s gorgeous daughter, Laura (Michelle Pfeiffer), dating gets difficult. Will keeps slipping out of bed to prowl the Central Park zoo.

Pfeiffer is superb as the heroine, a role that requires her to be both smartly independent and unconditionally devoted to the hero. But there is not quite enough of her. Just as director Mike Nichols tastefully cuts away from her love scene with Nicholson as soon as it starts, the relationship between their characters seems unsatisfying. Nichols, however, directs with a grace and playful humor that modulate the horror-story extremes. And he lets the script’s intelligence shine through. In Wolf, the werewolf’s carnal knowledge is neither good nor evil. But, to quote one character, it offers “power without guilt, and love without doubt”—qualities that many a man in a midlife crisis would kill for.


THE CEMENT GARDEN, by contrast, looks under the surface of adolescent sexuality. Based on the 1978 novel by British author Ian McEwan, it is about a household of four orphaned children who reinvent family values in a world removed from adult reality. Their father expires early in the story, collapsing facedown into wet cement while paving over a backyard where he could get nothing to grow. Then, the mother (Sinead Cusack) falls ill and dies in her bed. Fearing that they will be taken into care if her death is discovered, the children entomb her in cement in the basement.

Meanwhile, an erotic attraction simmers between the two eldest siblings, 15-year-old Jack (Andrew Robertson) and his 16-year-old sister, Julie (Charlotte Gainsbourg). The story unfolds from Jack’s point of view. He is a bundle of hormonal confusion, a callow teenager who keeps his head buried in a science fiction novel titled Voyage to Oblivion— when he is not masturbating.

Jack becomes infatuated with his sister, who flirtatiously leads him on. But when Julie starts dating an older man with a flashy sports car,

Jack’s jealousy forces a showdown between adult and adolescent morality.

As a story of children left to their own devices, The Cement Garden is reminiscent of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. But instead of a jungle island, the setting is an urban wasteland: the family’s strange house sits all by itself in a no man’s land of junkyards and vacant lots. With stark, haunting images, British director Andrew Birkin succinctly captures the disturbing menace of McEwan’s prose.

Oddly enough, in casting this delicate incest drama, Birkin has turned to his own family. Gainsbourg is the daughter of actress Jane Birkin, the director’s sister, while his son, Ned, plays the family’s fourth and

youngest child. The performances are excellent. And the nuanced chemistry between Gainsbourg and Robertson creates a sweltering sexual tension.

For the British, incest and hot weather seem to go hand in hand. The Cement Garden takes place during a freakishly hot sum-

mer, as did another movie from Britain about brother-sister incest, 1991’s Close My Eyes. With the British empire gone and the social fabric in decay, even the climate seems to have lost its civilizing influence. In The Cement Garden, incest becomes a refuge, an oasis in an emotional desert. The film passes no moral judgment. In fact, there is a tragic

innocence in the attraction between Jack and Julie. Like mad dogs, sunstruck Englishmen—and werewolves—they have simply lost control.


THE LION KING goes a step further than such recent Disney animated features as Beauty and the Beast (1991) and Aladdin (1992) in trying to appeal to modem sensibilities. Those earlier films tinkered with classic stories—and, especially, with their heroines—in order to seem contemporary. The Lion King, the first of the studio’s 32 animated features to come from an original story, addresses itself directly to the current American obsession with family and social breakdown, particularly the importance of fathers.

A story filled with wrenching emotions, The Lion King is set in Prideland, the animal kingdom wisely mied by the lion king Mufasa. The young prince Simba spends his days gambolling about and receiving lessons in statecraft and royal responsibility from his father. The only shadow on the realm is cast by the king’s own brother, Scar. He plots with hyenas, vicious outcasts who dwell beyond the kingdom in an elephant graveyard, to kill both father and son and take the throne for himself. In a nice touch of unintended irony, the hyenas are portrayed as the ultimate fatherless boys/gangsters, whereas in natural life they are a femaledominated species. When the hyenas receive guidance for the first time, from Scar, they show their frightening potential: the wouldbe usurper has them goose-step by him.

After Scar engineers Mufasa’s death—the king dies rescuing his son from a wildebeest stampede—the guilt-ridden Simba flees from Prideland into the desert. There, he is rescued and raised in an oasis paradise by Timon and Pumbaa, an odd pairing of a meerkat and a warthog. Those two certainly prove themselves to be true friends, but they cannot replace his father. Indeed, they mock what Simba remembers of Mufasa’s teaching and convince the prince to turn his back on his responsibilities. It takes a Hamlet-like visit from the ghost of his father to restore Simba’s sense of duty and send him back to Prideland, now sunk in squalor and overrun by useless hyenas, to do right by all his family, including Scar.

An Afro-centric movie that resonates with American anxiety about desperate young men in the ghetto, The Lion King nonetheless has its own appeal for children. There are the usual Disney helter-skelter production numbers and wild comedy scenes to relieve children petrified in their parents’ laps during Mufasa’s death. The animation is uniformly superb, especially the wildebeest stampede and the slow-motion climactic fight with Scar. And more than any of the new animated Disney movies, The Lion King is filled with joy and anguish that have the flavor of real life.